Hikers on this side of the park are usually headed to Boquete along the stunning Quetzal Trail. The trail from this side of the volcano to Boquete is mostly downhill, and it's recommended that hikers walk the trail in this direction unless they're looking for a strenuous workout. If you don't plan on hiking this trail in its entirety, it's worth walking a portion of it and then heading back when you've had enough. The Respingo ranger station can be reached by walking 45 minutes up a rutted road from the main road near Bajo Grande, or by driving a 4WD to the station, where you'll find a high-altitude picnic site with views.

Hiking in Parque Internacional la Amistad

La Amistad Park, popularly known by the Spanish acronym PILA, is "international" in that half the park is located in Costa Rica. La Amistad was formed in 1988 by the Panamanian and Costa Rican governments to protect the virgin forests and fragile ecosystems of the rugged Talamanca Range and its surrounding lowland buffer zones, and to protect one of the most biodiverse areas in the Americas. UNESCO designated the park a World Heritage Site in 1990, but, sadly, this hasn't been 100% effective in staunching encroachment by ranchers and hunters. Still, for the most part the park is totally untouched, creating a home for an extraordinary array of more than 100 mammal species, including endangered tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, and howler monkeys. There are also more than 400 species of birds like resplendent quetzals, crested eagles, harpy eagles, three-wattled bell birds, and a rare umbrella bird. The Panama side of the park encompasses 207,000 hectares (511,500 acres), the majority of which are part of the Bocas del Toro Province -- but it is here at the administration area near Cerro Punta where hikers can access the primeval rainforest that is this park's characteristic feature. This is one of the wettest regions in Panama, so prepare yourself for damp conditions with waterproof clothing and shoes.

What I enjoy about La Amistad is that there are several trails for all levels of ability (and all weather conditions), and there are usually few people here. Also, after a morning of hiking through rainforest, you can have an inexpensive, delicious lunch at a cooperative cafe near the park ranger station, located just past the hamlet of Las Nubes. Three trails leave from the ranger station, and one trail currently under repair (Sendero los Antepasados), which might be open by the time you read this. Sendero Puma Verde is the easiest walk here and can be completed in 15 minutes. Sendero El Retoño is 2.1km (1.3 miles) and an easy 1-hour loop trail that is mostly flat. The trail is simply gorgeous, taking hikers through a dense jungle and a bamboo tunnel, and across babbling brooks. There are signs along the way identifying trees and other plants. Sendero La Cascada is 3.5km (2 miles) and about a 2-hour round-trip hike to a series of lookout points with mountain and valley views, and a crashing 49m (160-ft.) waterfall. Along the way is a detour to a lookout point that, on a very clear day, offers a view that stretches to the Caribbean. Taking this detour will add an extra 1 1/2 hours to your trip; take a left at the fork at the Mirador Barranco. About half of this hike is uphill, and therefore moderately strenuous.

Lastly, Sendero Cerro Picacho takes gung-ho hikers along a narrow and poorly marked trail through primary forest up to a peak at 2,937m (9,635 ft.), where you can see from the Pacific to the Caribbean -- and you can even spend the night here in a rustic hut. This trail is uphill, about 4km (2.5 miles), and a strenuous slog that should not be attempted without a guide. If you're not already booked with a guide, call the co-op near the ranger station and they can arrange one for you. It takes about 3 1/2 hours each way for this trail.

ANAM charges $5 (£2.50) per person to enter the park. Hours are daily from 7:45am to 4pm. There is very rustic lodging in bunks at the station for $15 (£7.50) per person, but you'll need a sleeping bag. They have a grungy kitchen for cooking meals, or you can visit the Asociación Agroecoturística La Amistad (ASAELA) co-op near the station. The small cafe serves daily specials such as stewed chicken, beans, and rice for $4.50 (£2.25); hot soup for 75¢ (40p); and breakfast. They also sell locally produced preserves and other goodies (tel. 771-2620; daily 8am-4pm). There is also camping available for $6 (£3) per person

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.